2017-08-23 11:54 —
It is warm in San Sebastian, as Donostia is called in Spanish. Yet in the vaulted subterranean room of the Victoria Eugenia theatre people keep their cool during an evening of poetry in three minority languages: Basque, Catalan and Bildts. I’m there for the last language. To hear Gerard de Jong, who is in Donostia as Bildtish writer in residence for the programme Other Words. His first poem is called ‘Seeslag’ (‘Battle at Sea’), his second ‘De lysters singe dyn naam niet meer’ (‘The thrushes don’t sing your name anymore’). Gerard recites them confidently; nothing gives him away that, as a journalist by profession, he is doing this for the first time. Still, it is a strange experience to hear these Bildtish verses, accompanied by a shaky violinist, reverberate through this room. No one here understands a word of it without the printed translation.
For Gerard's Basque colleagues this is no laughing matter though. They’re delighted by his recital. “The sounds reminded me of a childhood friend who spoke Frisian”, says a young poetess. “Very powerful,” another nods. “It is so important that minority languages have the chance to spread their wings on evenings like this.” Gerard enjoys this support visibly. This is the first time I see him among like-minded people.
Gerard de Jong, second from the left, at Poetry and Thought in San Sebastian
As a documentary maker for NPO Radio 1, I’m always looking for subjects that can keep the listeners' attention for almost 40 minutes. When I met Gerard de Jong, I knew immediately that I had found one.
We were introduced to each other during an anti-Trump fundraiser in Amsterdam. Gerard told me about the Bildtse Post, a weekly magazine set up by his great-grandfather, where he inherited the position of editor-in-chief from his grandfather. About the Bildtish language, whose future is uncertain with only 6000 speakers. And about the council of The Bildt, which will become a part of a Frisian-speaking administration from January 1st 2018 onwards. Gerard feared that the few current initiatives to preserve the Bildtish language will be put on a back burner by the new administration.
To counteract these developments he started writing the very first novel in the Bildtish language. Not in the Bildt, but in the Basque Country, his novel would be translated afterwards into the Macedonian, Slovenian, Gallic and Basque languages. He got support for his plans from his Kurdish girlfriend Beri: she knew about language suppression like no other.
Thus far I listened to Gerard's story in agreement, but at this point my brain started to reel. This had everything to do with my own experiences with language conservation. In the late nineties I studied descriptive linguistics, specializing in native Mexican languages, at the University of Amsterdam. Many of the native Mexican languages faced extinction and linguists were working hard to encourage the speakers to read and write in their own languages. Languages are part of a cultural heritage, so I learned, but together they also form a linguistic ecosystem. And just like biodiversity is important for the environment, so does diversity of languages give us insights into all the possibilities for expression available to humankind – or had been available in the past.
Yet people harbour a much higher level of indifference to language conservation than to the conservation of endangered plants and animals. And when I found out that the Mexican Otomí youths I was helping to read and write in their own language, rather wanted to quickly learn Spanish so that they could work in the big city, I was quite crestfallen. Was language diversity even a concern of the people themselves? Or did only linguists care about this abstract ideal, like modern day Don Quichotes fighting a losing battle against globalization?
Gerard de Jong and fellow poet Iñigo
In 2017, long after I traded a career in linguistics for one in journalism, another aspect of devotion to one's heritage had come to light: conservative nationalists who talk about ‘oikophobia’ and prefer a National History Museum to a multicultural artistic landscape. Where, I asked myself, did Gerard stand in this continuum of naïve idealism and conservatism?
I got the answer in Donostia. The Basques had received him as a hero, Gerard said. Of course, there were differences between the Basques and the people from the Bildt (Bilkerts as they call themselves). The fight for the conservation of the Basque language – part of a larger pursuit of independence – had resulted in a fair amount of bloodshed. Not that long ago, in 2003, a Basque newspaper had been shut down by judicial decree without any obvious reason. Even today the Basque suffer harassment from the Guardia Civil, the Spanish military police. At the same time the Basque language is one of Europe’s most successful minority languages, with 700,000 speakers today thanks to a revival after the end of the Franco regime. The whole school curriculum, from nursery school to university, is available to the Basque in their own language.
This kind of suppression is foreign to the Bildtish language. Still, as a representative of such a small unrecognised minority language Gerard commanded respect. The Basques were just as dumbfounded as Gerard about the fact that the Bilkerts had so meekly agreed to the council reorganisation. And the natural connection between him and Beri needed no explanation.
During this evening of poetry I meet the new generation of world citizens for the first time: the so-called ‘glocalists’. Young people who would do everything to preserve their local identity, without losing sight of the world outside. These Basques are not only involved in the Kurdish struggle, but also in the struggle of the Palestinians, the Riffian people, the Armenians and Georgians. They are highly educated, travel around the world and have a lobbying office in New York around the corner from the United Nations. “You know more about the Bildtish language than Dutch people”, I hear Gerard say to his sympathetic audience. And I realise that here stands no narrow-minded patriot or ivory tower academic, but a glocalist.
The radio documentary by Maartje Duin about Gerard de Jong is going to be broadcast, probably in January 2018, as part of the Radio Doc program (VPRO, NPO Radio 1). www.maartjeduin.nl